Winning Will Have Benefits Beyond Gold Medal for U.S. Men's Olympic Hoops Team

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterAugust 5, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 1:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the USA Basketball Men's National Team looks on during the game against Nigeria on August 1, 2016 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

When most Olympians are preparing for this to be the pinnacle of their lives and you're, well, sort of chilling…it's absurd to go too far in heralding your competitive fire for participating.

Just ask Carmelo Anthony. He has played his role as "old head" almost too grumpily amid the veritable party the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team has been throwing while beating teams by 50 points in exhibitions leading up to its Rio debut against China on Saturday.

With little hope that some moderately talented team such as France or Australia might be able to shock the world and make the U.S. pay for the ace players who declined this Olympic run, let's address a far more relevant question than who is going to win.

Why are these guys doing this?

It might seem a ludicrous question when there's an easy default answer.

To represent the country. Duh.

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But the Olympics' place in sports and society isn't what it once was.

Credit the internet or blame terrorism for tweaking what was a simpler romantic vision of what the Games represented. Regardless, nothing that happens in Rio will carry the championship significance to these players as basketball's NBA playoffs. The Larry O'Brien Trophy is already made of gold, and NBA championship rings are real proof of a team's mettle.

For these guys now to spend such a large chunk of time risking their health to do an unpaid summer job, especially after U.S. basketball dominance has been clearly re-established, they've had to assume the role of actors looking for the motivation in their parts. It's easy to say the reason boils down to a basic patriotism of wearing three meaningful colors (and an unstated desire to be treated like a rock star in the offseason, too). Considering half the 12-man, younger-than-usual U.S. roster has never played this kind of international competition before, they have an obvious pull toward this adventure.

But what drives someone like Anthony, the 32-year-old reluctantly playing along as his teammates' party train heads to their cruise-ship headquarters in Brazil?

This is Anthony's fourth Olympics. Asked why he's playing—and at times he was leaning against going—Anthony paused for several moments before answering.

"The joy that I have playing with these guys," Anthony said. "The joy that I have playing international basketball, representing my country."

It's a notable twist on a stock answer, because it reveals the insufficient joy Anthony has found in playing for the New York Knicks.

That ride might be tilting upward now with the Knicks' latest roster additions, but the joy of competing well enough and winning often enough just hasn't been there. It may not be a coincidence he keeps wearing the No. 15 jersey he carried over from his NCAA champion year at Syracuse even though his Knicks No. 7 is low enough to be available for international play.

Anthony is driven by significance. He wouldn't have orchestrated his trade from Denver to be king of the hill, top of the heap, if that quality wasn't a major part of his personality.

Team USA is not just more spotlight; it's being in the spotlight with success.

Anthony is well aware that in a short time, everyone will be saying he is the first U.S. men's basketball player—not LeBron James, his lifetime rival and brother—to win three Olympic gold medals.

That achievement wasn't enough to impel James, coming off another NBA title, to go to Rio. Even Chris Paul, despite his repeated playoff disappointments, didn't think three gold medals were worth it with the way his body is wearing down and how much his Los Angeles Clippers will need him healthy to contend.

Anthony's standing as the only two-time gold-medal winner on the team (aside from the coaches) commands a level of respect that conveniently dovetails with a willingness to speak out on matters beyond the game. His role as an Olympian offers him a platform to speak on social issues at a time in his career when he's more comfortable with his convictions.

Anthony's surgically repaired left knee could absolutely use the rest, but what doesn't feel quite right down there can be offset somewhat by a warmer feeling inside. "Getting the winning feeling back" is how Anthony puts it, and that's not a team or national thing at all.

It boils down to wanting to feel like a winner.

Wearing those three meaningful colors and being treated like a rock star in the offseason are a means toward that end. But winning a gold medal—and spending these summer months expecting to win a gold medal—is how these NBA players justify the personal investment.

Everyone has their big reasons and also their little reasons. Kyrie Irving is embracing the alpha-male role he can't get with James on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and DeAndre Jordan is just happy not to be nagged from Paul's alpha-male role on the Clippers. For all the attention paid to the Golden State Warriors' new superteam, Kevin Durant could use a few weeks in a good-guy, All-American leading role, while the international game is perfect for showing off how Klay Thompson's shooting style shouldn't be marginalized just because Durant has joined his NBA team.

All the reasons are true, but those reasons are all tied into showing themselves as winners.

For DeMarcus Cousins, winning would be the ultimate counter to the tumultuous way his career has gone with the lowly Sacramento Kings. For Kyle Lowry, it's to soften the sting of not being included on the original 30-player list of U.S. finalists before so many declined the invite. For DeMar DeRozan, winning would raise the profile of a star overlooked while playing his entire career in Canada.

L.E. Baskow/Associated Press

The needs are similar up and down the roster. Harrison Barnes would like to redeem himself after missing so many shots in the Finals that he basically gave his Golden State Warriors day job away to Durant. Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green would like to continue disproving the doubters that made them late picks in the draft.

Paul George would like to win a title that only this particular triumphant return could make happen after he brutally broke his leg two years ago in a USA Basketball exhibition.

"I did it for the inner Paul George, the kid Paul George who always dreamed of winning a gold medal," he said. "I wasn't worried about no injuries. I wasn't worried about getting back on the court and how would I fare out there. It's about fulfilling that childhood dream and representing that country."

Representing that country is the right answer, and always has been.

But when far more guys weighed that honor and declined—16 in all declined if you count Kobe Bryant, compared to 12 who signed up for Rio—it's obviously not so simple.

The 12 will break their huddles in Rio with a single word: united.

First, though, each had to make an individual choice about what is no longer an obvious decision to represent the United States.

     

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.